What to Know About Encephalopathy

Medically Reviewed By Seunggu Han, M.D.
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Encephalopathy refers to any condition that disrupts the normal functioning of the brain. It is a general term for all kinds of trauma, toxin buildup, infections, and metabolic problems that affect the brain. The most common symptom of encephalopathy is an altered mental state. Depending on the cause, encephalopathy may be temporary or permanent. It can also be acquired or inherited.

Early treatment of many types of encephalopathy can bring significant improvement, including curing the disease completely.

This article explains encephalopathy in further detail and goes over its symptoms, causes, and treatment.

What is encephalopathy?

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Encephalopathy is an umbrella term for diseases, disorders, and malfunctions that specifically target the brain. It presents primarily as an altered mental state.

According to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS), some types of encephalopathy can cause a gradual loss of memory and cognitive ability. Others can also cause personality changes and an inability to concentrate.

Types of encephalopathy

There are two main types of encephalopathy: reversible encephalopathy and irreversible encephalopathy.

Reversible encephalopathy, as the name suggests, is encephalopathy that is curable. Examples include metabolic problems and brain tumors.

Irreversible encephalopathy, on the other hand, is permanent and untreatable. Examples include chronic traumatic encephalopathy and hypoxic-ischemic encephalopathy.

Read more about brain tumors here.

What causes encephalopathy?

Encephalopathy can arise from a wide variety of medical conditions and physical injuries.

Here are some of the most common causes:

Reversible causes

  • Hashimoto’s encephalopathy: This is a rare disorder that occurs when the body’s immune system mistakenly attacks the thyroid. The thyroid is a gland that produces growth-regulating substances for the body.
  • Brain tumor: This is the growth of unhealthy cells in the brain. One of the main risk factors for brain tumors is long-term exposure to X-ray radiation.
  • Hepatic encephalopathy: This is a nervous system disorder that occurs when toxins the liver is unable to remove accumulate in the brain. It can occur in people who have cirrhosis and in those who have taken an overdose of acetaminophen or other similar drugs.
  • Toxic metabolic encephalopathy: This is a brain dysfunction that results from a chemical imbalance in the blood. It commonly occurs with serious diseases such as diabetes, liver disease, and kidney failure.
  • Uremic encephalopathy: This is a brain disorder that results from acute or chronic kidney failure. It causes an accumulation of toxins in the blood.
  • Glycine encephalopathy: This is an inherited disease characterized by an excess of the amino acid glycine in the brain. It occurs when there is not enough enzyme to break up glycine in the body.
  • Brain infections: These occur when viruses, bacteria, fungi, or parasites attack the brain and cause inflammation. The most common types of brain infections are encephalitis and meningitis.

Irreversible causes

  • Chronic traumatic encephalopathy: This is a degenerative brain condition that results from repeated trauma to the head. It is generally associated with contact sports, such as boxing and football.
  • Hypoxic-ischemic encephalopathy: This is a brain dysfunction that occurs when the oxygen supply to the brain stops temporarily. It can occur with carbon monoxide poisoning, drug overdose, or near-drowning.

What are the symptoms of encephalopathy?

Symptoms of encephalopathy vary depending on the underlying cause. However, most people with the condition experience:

  • memory loss
  • confusion
  • tiredness
  • personality changes
  • involuntary muscle twitching
  • involuntary eye movement

Some people may also experience:

When should you contact a doctor?

You should seek medical advice if you are experiencing any of the above symptoms, particularly if they are severe. Severe symptoms include personality changes, speech problems, involuntary movements, or seizures.

How is encephalopathy diagnosed?

To make a diagnosis, your doctor may perform lab tests, such as:

  • Blood tests: These can measure the levels of toxins in the blood. They can also detect infections.
  • Spinal fluid exam: This looks for toxins, viruses, and infections such as encephalitis and meningitis.
  • CT or MRI scan: This can look for signs of brain swelling and brain tumors.
  • Electroencephalogram (EEG) test: This measures electrical activity in the brain.

What is the treatment for encephalopathy?

According to the NINDS, treatment for encephalopathy depends on the type and severity of the condition.

Because of this, your doctor will need to identify the underlying cause before administering treatment. In the case of seizures, your doctor may prescribe anticonvulsants.

Your doctor may also recommend dietary changes and nutritional supplements to slow the damage to your brain. In some cases, a person with encephalopathy may also require dialysis or organ replacement surgery.

What is the outlook?

The outlook for encephalopathy varies depending on the type.

A 2021 study that sampled 188 people with hepatic encephalopathy found the probability of survival to be around 44% and 35%. This was at 12 and 24 months, respectively.

Meanwhile, a 2017 study that looked at seizure-causing encephalitis determined that the death rate associated with the disease was 30%.

Overall, encephalopathy, in all its forms, is a very serious condition. However, in many cases, it is still survivable if treated promptly and effectively.

What are the complications of encephalopathy?

Encephalopathy has the potential to cause severe complications, such as:

  • loss of consciousness or coma
  • permanent brain damage or loss of life
  • heart failure
  • blood poisoning
  • blindness
  • hearing loss

Getting prompt and effective treatment may help you avoid these complications.

How can you prevent encephalopathy?

You can reduce your risk of encephalopathy by adopting a healthy lifestyle. You can start by:

  • eating a healthy diet
  • reducing your exposure to X-ray radiation and toxic substances
  • avoiding alcohol

Summary

Encephalopathy refers to any condition that interferes with the regular functioning of the brain. It can be reversible or irreversible. It can also be acquired or inherited.

Common examples include Hashimoto’s encephalopathy, brain tumor, hepatic encephalopathy, and toxic metabolic encephalopathy.

Many people with encephalopathy experience memory loss, subtle personality changes, and involuntary muscle twitching. Others also experience seizures and tiredness.

Early treatment of many types of encephalopathy can result in considerable improvement, including a complete alleviation of symptoms. Be sure to seek early treatment if you feel you have this condition.

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Medical Reviewer: Seunggu Han, M.D.
Last Review Date: 2022 Jun 10
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